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Guardians of craft and tradition: Women from the rural areas of the Western Balkans strengthen their communities

The International Day of Rural Women, celebrated globally on October 15, offers an opportunity to shine a spotlight on the remarkable achievements and inspiring stories of women hailing from the rural regions of the Western Balkans. These women have demonstrated unwavering determination in strengthening their communities through their involvement in the Regional Programme for Local Democracy in the Western Balkans 2 (ReLOaD2).

Living in the countryside presents a unique set of privileges and challenges, making it a distinct and special experience. Slavica Tadić, a resident of Montenegro, chose this lifestyle, much like many others in her community. For over six decades, Tadić has dedicated herself to preserving the rural way of life. Her pursuits include crafting woolen carpets and managing rural tourism. 

“Early illness and the loss of my husband created a challenging situation for my family. In search of a solution for my children and me, I turned to rural tourism. Our location, near the Risan-Žabljak main road, has proven advantageous” Tadić recounts.

To adapt to evolving technologies and techniques, Tadić recognized the need to acquire new knowledge and skills. She joined the “Network for Rural Development of Montenegro” and had the opportunity to partake in the “Agritourism School” education program supported by ReLOaD2. Tadić takes pride in her household, recognized as an exemplar of good practice. She describes her mission as preserving a part of their traditional heritage while warmly welcoming guests with homemade products.

The impact of the “Agritourism School” extended to Montenegrin municipalities like Nikšić and Plužine, benefiting at least 15 more rural households where women play pivotal roles. These women honed their business acumen to manage a sustainable agritourism offering.

Slavica’s story resonates with many friends from the Municipality of Gacko in neighboring Bosnia and Herzegovina. In Gacko, women are dedicated to the production of traditional Gatački kajmak. Recognizing the importance of collective action for safeguarding their traditional dairy product, they established the “Association of Gatački Kajmak Producers.” ReLOaD2 provided essential support through the “Let’s preserve the traditional products of Gatha” project.

Dragana Milović, the association’s president, acknowledges the challenge of motivating women to engage in project activities due to their economic dependence. She emphasizes that despite their limited property ownership and employment opportunities, women actively contribute to business decisions and local community development.

Yet, with support from the local community and the European Union, the women from Gacko embarked on an educational journey to establish a traceability system in production. This move addresses a fundamental requirement for branding and protecting Gatački kajmak, aligning with the community’s development strategy.

“The woman most often does not own property, is not employed and has no permanent income. On the other hand, women are involved in making business and entrepreneurial decisions, as well as development strategies within the local community, which represents a significant obstacle for the development of female entrepreneurship,” Milović said.

Empowering Women Digitally

The bountiful nature of the Municipality of Topola in Serbia has inspired numerous rural households to focus on producing vegetables, dairy, and meat. To savor the authentic flavors of Šumadija, one must visit the agricultural farms around Topola, where hardworking housewives craft traditional products. However, these women, although steadfast in their production efforts, are part of troubling statistics indicating that in Serbia, only every tenth rural woman owns property, a mere 12 percent have health insurance, and only 27 percent possess digital literacy.

Nevertheless, the resilient women of Topola persisted in their efforts, gaining recognition through the ReLOaD2 program. Over a hundred agricultural farms, predominantly led by women in this municipality, succeeded in marketing their products on the “Agroponuda” web portal as part of the “Fruits of agricultural farms click to table” project. This initiative, led by the Center for Uniform Regional Development (CenTriR) in Belgrade, facilitated the digital transformation of their businesses. Women received training on selling their domestic products through social networks and technical support for online product placement.

Vanesa Belkić, Director of CenTriR, attests to the success of the project, noting the enthusiasm of female farmers for the training and its positive impact on the community. She emphasizes that rural women are integral to the survival and growth of rural areas, necessitating ongoing support for sustainable development.

“The female farmers were very satisfied with the training, topics, approach and lecturers. In the Municipality of Topola, there have never been projects aimed at supporting agricultural farms run by women, so we achieved better results than expected,” said Belkić.

In Lushnje, Albania, Denada Korreshi has devoted over 22 years to the civil society sector, championing the cause of marginalized groups. Joining CSO-Zeri Qytetar in 2013, she aimed to utilize her experience for her community’s benefit and within ReLOaD2 she executed the “Empowerment of invisible women” project in Patos, targeting 315 women and girls. The initiative emphasized enhancing their economic capacity through handicrafts, resulting in 15 individuals generating income. The project faced the challenge of engaging rural women effectively, but their motivation and determination proved vital in achieving the project’s objectives, showcasing the potential of collective efforts for enhanced economic outcomes and improved value in the supply chain.

Women in Beekeeping

In addition to supporting female farmers, the ReLOaD2 program also extended its aid to passionate beekeeping enthusiasts in rural North Macedonia, Albania, and Kosovo. One such enthusiast is Biljana Zileska from North Macedonia, who participated in the project “Economic empowerment of rural women through beekeeping.” Zileska underwent workshops to enhance her beekeeping expertise and ventured into producing honey-based cosmetic products, such as soaps, bath products, lip balms, and wax candles.

“In the field of beekeeping, there are great examples of women who show exceptional dedication to beekeeping. They are actively involved in training programs, conducting research and, most importantly, turning their innovative ideas into action. Their voice in rural areas is particularly significant because it contributes to balanced and inclusive regional development,” Zileska pointed out.

Within the beekeeping community, there are numerous examples of dedicated women actively participating in training programs, conducting research, and translating innovative ideas into action. Their contributions are vital for balanced and inclusive regional development.

Valbona Ismaili Salihu, a 51-year-old beekeeper from Albania, exemplifies the dedication and determination of women in this field. Overcoming initial skepticism, she pursued her beekeeping journey, with mentors recognizing her resolve and helping her achieve her dreams. 

A similar journey was undertaken by 62-year-old Melvete Krasniqi from the town of Podujevë/o in Kosovo*, who has been beekeeping since childhood. Her participation in the ReLOaD2 program, facilitated by the “EKW” Organization, allowed her to expand her beehives and uphold the tradition of beekeeping in her family.

“I remember the day my father insisted that I take care of my first bee. I excitedly but patiently watched her movements and learned the art of beekeeping under his wise guidance. However, the accessibility of the necessary materials brought great challenges on this trip,” Krasniqi recalled.

The Regional Programme for Local Democracy in the Western Balkans 2 (ReLOaD2), funded by the European Union (EU) and implemented by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), has transformed the lives of hundreds of rural women by fostering collaboration between local governments and civil society organizations.

Resoource: Guardians of craft and tradition: Women from the rural areas of the Western Balkans strengthen their communities | United Nations Development Programme (undp.org)

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